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by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Waitress & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & enna (Keri Russell) is unhappily married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She works at a pie shop somewhere in the South for an unrelenting sourpuss of a boss (Lew Temple) and a crotchety old owner named Joe (Andy Griffith). She's got a sweet, deep drawl and no one to really talk to. Her only companionship in life comes from the joint's other two waitresses, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (writer/director Adrienne Shelly), who like her, but don't really get her.





Jenna's one and only solace, then, comes in the creation of the shop's pies. She begins each night by building them in her head, mixing pudding with graham crackers with bananas and the day's fresh successes and failures. When she finds out that she's pregnant with a baby she doesn't want, for example, she embodies her fears in a brandy-brushed cheesecake she names "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie." It's daffy but poignant -- a delicate balance the film manages throughout. Through her burgeoning friendship with Joe, her smoldering affair with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) -- and despite Earl's increasingly erratic, violent behavior -- Jenna gradually grows into the person and pie maker that she wants to be.





That description sounds cloying. The trailers make it look cutesy. But Waitress is neither of those things. It's the best, most satisfying film about personal growth I've seen this year.





The setting and clothing suggest the South of the '50s -- a conservative time in a conservative place that brought tremendous pressures to bear on any women aspiring to more than just being housewives, servants, and baby machines. The film isn't a period piece, though, and the stylistic anachronism exists to suggest that, outside the world of modern cinema and scholarship -- where the talking points of feminism are so firmly entrenched that any film about women that lacks them seems almost taboo -- there are still throngs of women -- poor, simple women perhaps, but kind, honest, good ones -- who long for freedom and purpose without knowing to invoke Friedan or Steinem or hooks. Women who find their voices, their talent, their inspiration in things that others would consider patriarchal drudgery.





Waitress is a story about that kind of woman, who finds strength enough in others to get out of a bad, loveless, exploitive marriage and has the good sense not to go hopping right into another one (even if it might be more loving and supportive). At the center of it all is a near-perfect performance by Keri Russell. She's All-American in a pretty way, which makes her the perfect little Southern waitress on the outside, but she's got enough pathos and longing in what Dr. Pomatter calls "those sad eyes" to fight her bonds and cuckold her way to emotional freedom.





Waitress could easily have descended into sentimental claptrap, but Shelly's deceptively sharp script remains steadfast, keeping expectations low then making all the right, counterintuitive choices. From beginning to end, Waitress is a marvel of a movie. (Rated PG-13)

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